Well, folks, I'm back. I know you were all torn up at my absence. Unfortunately there hasn't been anything I've really wanted to see yet this year. But I will continue on my quest through Oscar history. 1929's entry The Broadway Melody is not to be found anywhere, so I will skip to 1930's harrowing All Quiet on the Western Front. It is an iconic adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel, and features some of the most powerful screen images ever created.
The film, directed by Louis Milestone, follows the book fairly carefully. He does a great job of translating Remarque's brutal prose to the screen, condensing pages into powerful images. The film differs from other films of the period in style and presentation. There is a scant score, and often we are left with only the raw image. This film is from the pre-censorship era, so the fighting is actually quite graphic. It is more honest with its viewers than many films of the time (or many later on, for that matter). Milestone finds his voice early on in the sprawling epic and keeps with it to the final shot.
Notwithstanding Milestone's directorial mastery, the film really wouldn't get anywhere without Lew Ayer as Paul. He offers a particularly sensitive performance that never gets overblown. His descent from idealism to realism to despair is perfectly captured. The supporting cast is also great. Part of what sets this film apart from its peers is its general avoidance of melodrama. Sometimes melodrama has a kind of quaint appeal, but here its absence makes the film much stronger. It becomes a standard for all anti-war films to come, a standard that weaker offerings like The Hurt Locker only self-consciously hint at.
The one weakness in the film is its substantially watered-down dialogue, which sometimes seriously detracts from the atmosphere. But its visual power and the strength of the actors carry what the dialogue often lacks, and the overall presentation is very impressive.
All Quiet on the Western Front stands as a testament to the early film art, and shows us where film would have gone had the standardized industry system not taken over. It pushes the boundaries of the medium and leaves the viewer with a memorable and powerful film experience.
by Chase Harrison